How to Fight Habituated Sin

“I gave my back to those who strike me” (Isaiah 50:6a)

A lot of Christians are naïve regarding the danger of intentional acts of sin. We mistakenly think that because we are freed from the legal dominion of sin this means that we are also freed from the functional dominion of sin. Paul would have us know otherwise. In Romans 6:16 he says, “Do you know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” The point of this rhetorical question is to awaken believers from feeling indifferent about our sin. Paul wants us to realise that actions do indeed result in habits and that habits can become a kind of self-wrought chain if we are not careful. Any honest Christian will admit to having experienced the reality of this process. Who among us hasn’t felt a loss of freedom from having repeatedly indulged an evil desire?

Given the danger of habituated sin, every Christian needs to be well schooled in the practices needed to “mortify” the so-called passions of the flesh. We touched upon one of these in the sermon last Sunday morning. There is nothing more potent for fighting entrenched sin than to meditate on the words from Isaiah 50:6, “I gave my back to those who strike”.

This verse reminds us of the horrifying reality that Jesus really did suffer vicariously the just penalty for our sin.  When we think back to Jesus being scourged by the Roman guards, or having to carry the cross-beam to Golgotha, we need to own the truth that he did this so that the curse of sin could be lifted from our shoulders. Jesus was not a victim; he was a sacrifice. He willingly gave his back to the whip of justice so that our guilty souls could be pardoned.

Now, as disciples of the cross, we need to learn how to use this sobering truth to find freedom from persistent temptation. The secret is in meditating on the evil of sin. One of the great lies of the devil is that sin is life-giving. In a moment of temptation, a forbidden fruit always looks full of promise. The prospect of quick pleasure is often the only feather needed to tip the balance of the will from a “no” to a “yes”. One of the best ways to counteract this slide is by reflecting on the back of Jesus which bore the pain of our just deserts. If we can remember the high cost of sin – a price that was nothing less than the shed blood of the incarnate Son of God – this can often shake us out of a spiritual stupor. The more clearly we can call to mind the flesh of Jesus being torn on behalf of our flings with the devil, the less excitement we will feel about entertaining a besetting sin. If anyone needs further help in terms of putting this into practice, my suggestion would be to pray through the wonderful hymn by Isaac Watts, “Infinite Grief! Amazing Woe!”. The hymn begins with a vivid statement of the terrible pain that the Redeemer bore in dying on the cross. After bringing this to our attention, the hymn then issues an unambiguous indictment. We read, “But knotty whips and ragged thorns/in vain do I accuse”.  Likewise, the Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders are put aside as chief culprits. Instead, the source of Jesus’ suffering is identified as our sins. The hymns says, “Twere you, my sins, my cruel sins,/His chief tormentors were;/Each of my crimes became a nail,/And unbelief a spear.”

The truth that the hymn wants to sear into our consciences is the fact that Jesus really did have to suffer excruciating pain in order to redeem us from sin. That little besetting sin, the one that feels like a negligible self-indulgence, is actually not small at all. The crumbs of gluttony, or the seeds of unkindness, are nothing less than the nails hammered into the wrists of Jesus.

Yet, the hymn is not content with the mere placing of blame. The real purpose of the stanzas is to inspire a spirit of godly sorrow, something that can till the heart and prepare it for a fresh outpouring of grace. This in mind, the hymn engages in a form of self-dialogue. Through the hymn we are invited to cry out in earnest grief, “Break, break, my heart! O burst, mine eyes!/And let my sorrows bleed.” The hymn concludes with a plea for the special grace needed to repent. The hymn says, “Strike, mighty grace, my flinty soul,/Till melting waters flow,/And deep repentance drown mine eyes/In undissembled woe.”

What we have in this hymn is a very honest picture of what it looks like to meditate on the evil of our sin. My advice to those struggling with temptation this week (which is all of us) is to use this hymn as a tool for saying “no” to forbidden fruit. In the very moment when sin begins to sparkle with beauty and allure, call to mind the reality of the suffering servant who gave his back so that we could be freed from the penalty and power of sin. The more we think about the suffering love of Christ, the more disgust we will feel in the presence of sin. We will begin to see sin for what it actually is: hatred of God.  

By Joe Barnard